Five officers arrived on the scene at the intersection of Montgomery St and Utica Ave when the man "took a two-hand shooting stance" and pointed a metal object at them, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said.
Vassell's father, Eric Vassell, said his son had bipolar disorder and had been admitted to the hospital multiple times in recent years, sometimes after encounters with police.
Police said Vassell was killed by officers responding to reports of a man aiming a gun at pedestrians.
Police officers in New York City fatally shot a black man who was pointing what appeared to be a gun at them on Wednesday, police said.
"The resolution of this case affirms and enhances the NYPD's commitment to conducting effective investigations to prevent crime and terrorism", O'Neill said.
"They didn't say "freeze, ' they didn't say "put your hands up", Witness Jack Hinds said".
The officers who responded Wednesday didn't have some tools other peers might have used to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution, from specific knowledge of Vassell as a neighborhood figure to specialized training in dealing with mentally ill civilians.
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After the shooting, dozens of Crown Heights residents crowded around police lines, some apparently angry. But they say he was harmless. "He hasn't taken his medication for years", his father Eric told the Daily News.
"On the roof he would play with water guns by himself", she said. "He never had a problem with anyone".
None of the officers involved were wearing body cameras, a police spokesman told reporters. He has no issue with violence.
When officers arrived at the scene, they found a man matching the description provided by the callers, Monahan said. "If this individual with a loaded weapon, who for whatever reason, including a mental health challenge, was ready to use it, that's a split-second matter of trying to save lives right then and there".
The outlet adds that one witness who saw the incident unfold stated that police didn't give Vassell a warning and instead immediately began shooting. Trying to find an officer familiar with Vassell "in that moment of emergency" was "already very, very late in the trajectory", he said.
A tense crowd gathered after the shooting, with some people shouting at officers and decrying the killing as another example of an unarmed black man dying at the hands of police officers who overreacted. "But as a member of the armed forces, I believe the United States won as well", said Farhaj Hassan, a U.S. Army reservist and the lead plaintiff in the 2012 lawsuit in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.
Andre Wilson, 38, told the Daily News that he had known the victim for 20 years, describing him as a quirky neighborhood character.